Thursday, March 29, 2012

First and foremost, cheers for a blog post that can finally involve my photographs!

I can happily say that despite the vehement attempts of at least one Croatian Airlines official, who seemed dead set on making me miss my flight through claiming that each of my bags was one kilogram over the size limit and that I needed to spontaneously check my (rather small, thank you) backpacking backpack, I have arrived back in the United States. This was also in spite of Heathrow airport's attempt to hold me hostage indefinitely, when my 6 hour layover became 8 hours and then 11 hours over the span of Sunday afternoon.

On the bright side, I can happily say that I am keenly aware of every item available at  Harrod's.

The trip really was just beautiful. Little did I know that Southeastern Europe is the mecca of every bizarre and oddly quaint item that I could possibly want, as the following pictures indicate. If I could furnish my entire apartment with the array of absurd and intricate items that I witnessed on this trip, you can bet your bottom dollar (and my bottom dollar, probably) that I absolutely would. Who does not want, no, need these Jim Henson-like creatures peering out of their window every night? Fending off bandits and bears? I know that I would sleep better.

And this gem! This is ecofriendly both in literal terms and in so much as it actually resembles the Earth.  See the back wheel, like a small and subservient moon. Route 66 would be in its prime if some sort of tax break were associated with using these bad boys during rush hour. And how could you conceivably be out of shape? You would flop right over. Real inspiration to keep on top (yes, literally) of your workout.  In sum, most city museums might leave this out... but not Zagreb. They have their priorities in order.

Even just walking down the sidewalk, there were all kinds of really unexpected figures... like to the right. This elephant creature appears to be planning some kind of grand escape, and I say "grand" because he was about fifteen feet above the ground in that window sill. Best of luck, friend! This was not a storefront or anything, by the way. For all I know, for all anyone knows, he pays the rent and runs the household and I am being horribly offensive by making these assumptions regarding his size and existence.

These are my favorite elements of traveling, exposed in a rather peculiar way. Unearthing these completely unanticipated elements of a place by quietly walking through the residential neighborhoods, and then comparing that to the way that the city represents itself in its museums. Watching the way that people transport themselves, how people stand on the bus and if they are speaking, what icons they personify and present (even when they may think that few people are looking.) I was going to talk about the 'Zombie Ballet' of Belgrade in this entry, but then I got all wrapped up in the completely wacky aspects of the cities themselves...

Actually, here. If the zombie ballet were an object, it would be a combination of the previous three photos. If you are like me, you would find it gorgeous because it represents all of the surprising grotesqueness that conventionally beautiful actions can convey: passion, movement, light.

And to end with a photo that perhaps embodies all of these elements in a similar, and tragic, sense:

It is so hard, but essential, to remember that Someone once lived there.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

on war and scales of measurement

The biggest graveyards in Sarajevo are immediately next to the sports fields. If you were to have a tendency to shoot for the net too high, like I do, I can only imagine that you would be in danger of some seriously iconoclastic soccer games on a regular basis.

Coffee houses and bars are immediately next to many of the other, smaller graveyards (where "smaller" means "not Olympic swimming pool-sized.") One of my favorite outdoor cafes was less than five feet from a series of rather impressive tombstones. The square footage of the graveyard was greater than that of the affiliated mosque.

This is not surprising, of course, given the number of people that died during the war. But... I have not seen life kept in this close physical proximity to death anywhere else that I have been in the world. The fact that at any given location in Sarajevo you are surrounded by high mountains, the "Bosnian Alps," exacerbates that feeling of enclosure--it is magnificently claustrophobic. The blown-out buildings every couple of blocks serve as a reminder of this. And further, the Historical Museum captures this elegantly: there are sections that recreate living conditions during the war. For example, the importance of the kitchen as a public space becomes obvious: you can walk into said kitchen. This reminded me of the Holocaust exhibit in the Museum of Yugoslavia: you can walk into a concentration camp cabin.You can feel it and smell it--and while I am sure that the feeling and smell are wildly unrealistic--you get a sense of it. The tiniest additional notion of scale.

There is a section of the Sarajevo exhibit entirely devoted to pictures drawn by children before their schools were bombed. One of them depicts a raincloud pouring through a rainbow--and then, there is a color wheel. Essentially, the rain seeps through the rainbow, and that is how colors on Earth are made. Another, in response to how 'destroying bridges destroys people' as a prompt, wrote their name (Adna) in beans pasted to a loose leaf sheet in the shape of a bridge. There were rapids in the background... that was it. Two colors: brown and blue.

It was very simple and powerful. And almost impossible: I was able to see the museum even though it was "closed" by sweet-talking the guard into letting me in. (In Italian! Three years of language study: justified!) Seeing it by myself was brilliant. Actually, this museum may be one of the only ones left in Sarajevo, soon. All of the public museums are being shut down by the government due to a lack of funding. This is evidence that distributing public resources amongst fourteen different cantons, with radically different governmental systems, can't be easy. The National Museum was practically in shambles--my two dollar admission got me into one room of very nice doric columns, and every other exhibit had been shut down. Except for the graveyard, which was not an exhibit, so much as a graveyard... placed in the museum courtyard.

Unrelatedly, I met the most fantastic hitchhiker, and we talked about cognac for about twenty minutes because the only phrases that either of us could articulate in Bosnian and English involved alcohol. (It knows no borders, apparently.) Bear this in mind, if you should ever find yourself in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in need of a topic of conversation. He was about one thousand years old, and he let me take his portrait:

In my next blog post, I plan on trying to adequately describe what I can only rightfully call a "Serbian Zombie-Themed Ballet." If Tim Burton himself had choreographed it, I would not be surprised. Brace yourself accordingly, as I will be scouring the internet for video evidence of this beautiful, beautiful thing.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Balkans: Foray into Adventure and Sociopolitical Intrigue

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Christina. She wanted to travel frequently and fervently. She also wanted to experience the bizarre and fascinating things that Washington, DC had to offer. And then, she found her use of the past tense somewhat macabre (instead of nostalgic as intended) and launched into the point of her new blog through anecdotal means, instead of introductory.

I was not going to write this entry this evening. I had absolutely no intention of doing so. But then, just as I was packing up from the Sarajevo hostel lobby, the spritely owner of this very hostel sent me a piece of cake on the house. This is not just any cake, either. Bosnian cake is manufactured entirely from fresh honey, apples, cinnamon, and stardust. IE, the exact ingredients of my favorite dish: the deus ex machina.

And so, here I am. Rejuvenated, and interested in recounting the bounty that the former Yugoslavia has offered me. Usually, this blog will have photos of my own taking. They are often good--I promise. Unfortunately, due to the archaic nature of my travel laptop, those will have to wait.

Today, I went to the 'Tunnel of Hope' in Sarajevo, which is fantastically difficult to find in the suburbs of the city--perhaps to its initial advantage. It was used in the nineties to transfer food and munitions during the most violent portions of the siege (if you have no idea what I am talking about, I highly suggest that you read *at least* the following Wikipedia page: and was, frankly, quite important. The museum commemorating the tunnel is so small that I was at first uncertain as to if it was some kind of 'tourist trap' en route to the actual tunnel, but no! It was not. The exhibit inside was compiled with great thought and precision. Sarajevo has proven to be replete with historical gems such as this.

The interviews that I have conducted for my field research for the European and Eurasian Studies Institute at GW thus far have been fascinating, and I will tell you why:

A) The passion that the employees of the Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) show for their work in advocating protection of the rights of minorities and vulnerable groups is quite inspiring.
B) It is accompanied by this poignant, completely devastating, and honest sense of frustration and hopelessness in all aspects of the pursuit.

I have never received such frank assessments of [lack of] systematic change from any other group of people (let alone diplomats) in my entire life. I am hoping that it is because I am coming off as particularly approachable in how I conduct my interviews, and that the beneficiaries of these programs do not have this level of negativity constantly present. The OSCE has facilitated some truly remarkable change here, but it is obvious how dysfunctional many of the social systems in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina remain. To see the tensions associated with the issue of social inclusion unfold before me this intricately, with this level of gravity and complexity, has been amazing. I probably have enough interview material here to write a book, and enough experiential material to write an epic.

If only I spoke the language! That is my predominant regret. My Russian has gotten me around a little bit, and my pronunciation is great. Most people--especially in Serbia since I appear Serbian--continue to attempt to speak to me in the relevant language after basic exchanges due to the (inaccurate) assumption that I know exactly what they are saying. Sometimes I do, but only when a respectable dose of cognates are involved. Italian and French, unfortunately, have been utterly useless thus far. I may make a mad dash to Trieste next Friday to validate my language skills.

I like it here in Sarajevo better than I did in Belgrade, but that is for another blog post. Tomorrow, I visit the National, Historical, and City museums of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Sarajevo respectively, and continue working through this sizable collection of Bosnian sonnets that I have purchased (yes, it is a dual-language version.) Ciao, or as they say in Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian, ćao! I promise to instigate something fascinating or utterly exhilarating within the next several days so that I can recount it publicly!